Millennial group pushes MARTA expansion

An upstart group of millennials is trying to reshape the debate about public transportation in Atlanta, starting with the proposed expansion of MARTA.

In a press conference Tuesday at the Gold Dome, a new nonprofit called Advance Atlanta urged the Georgia Legislature to pass Senate Bill 330 (previously filed as Senate Bill 313). The bill would allow for a ballot initiative in DeKalb and Fulton counties that, if approved, would raise the sales tax by a half-percent to fund at least three major MARTA expansion projects.

Advance Atlanta aims to mobilize a sometimes politically disconnected age group to lobby for a bigger, better transit system. The founding members served together on the Atlanta Regional Commission’s Millennial Advisory Panel last year. A few months ago, they decided to coalesce into a permanent transit advocacy group.

“For too long we’ve been kicking the can on transit,” said Advance Atlanta President Nick Juliano. “That’s why traffic and congestion currently rank as the top complaint of metro residents. We urge our lawmakers to make decisions that are not based on short-term planning, but on long-term investments that will pay off for decades, and indeed generations to come.”

Over 70 people showed up for Advance Atlanta’s first event on Jan. 28 in Alpharetta to discuss mass transit during the 2016 Georgia legislative session. Although the organization comprises mostly millennials, it is open to area residents of all ages, Juliano said.

The sponsor of SB 330, state Sen. Brandon Beach, R-Roswell, said he wants to seize the momentum around transportation funding in Georgia that began with last year's passage of a $1-billion-per-year bill to pay for highway and bridge improvements. Beach's proposal, when paired with federal matching funds, would generate about $8 billion for MARTA projects over the next 40 years.

MARTA officials have said that would be enough money to pay for an expansion of heavy rail north along Ga. 400 to Windward Parkway in Alpharetta and east along I-20 to The Mall at Stonecrest in Lithonia, as well as a light rail line through the Emory/CDC corridor in Decatur.

Businesses have been among the biggest backers of the idea, including the Metro Atlanta Chamber and Georgia Chamber of Commerce. They co-funded a study by consulting firm HNTB Corp. that found expanding MARTA could generate $5.2 billion in gross regional product for the metro Atlanta region through 2040.

But many lawmakers remain staunchly opposed, including Sen. John Albers, R-Roswell. Albers chairs the State and Local Government Committee, which heard testimony about the bill Tuesday.

Albers said north Fulton already has among the lowest unemployment rates in the state and doesn’t need MARTA to attract businesses. Also, he said the benefits would be lopsided because 70 percent of the tax would be collected in Fulton, but two-thirds of it would be spent in DeKalb.

Only 3 percent of metro Atlantans use transit, according to U.S. census data from 2013.

However, a 2015 survey of metro Atlanta residents conducted by the Atlanta Regional Commission found that — across all age groups except for those 65 and older — expanding public transit was seen as the best long-term solution to traffic. Forty-four percent of respondents held that view, as opposed to 31 percent who preferred improving roads and highways.